(Note from Darin: This post has my name on it but it was a collaborative ThreadATL effort. Thanks to all who joined us this year in speaking up on urbanism issues. Keep talking to city leaders, transportation leaders, developers, neighborhood leaders, and more. Urban design affects all of us!)
The BEST of urbanism in Atlanta, 2018
More attention going to urbanism issues in online media
This year we were grateful for the work of King Williams and Sean Keenan, who write for Saporta Report and Curbed Atlanta respectively — both are covering stories related to urbanism topics, and doing it well.
At Curbed, Keenan often picks up some important slack by covering the kinds of city-legislation stories that we wish Atlanta’s paper of record would bother to write about. And at Saporta Report (which also has some great coverage of local politics), King Williams is writing strong posts that call for, among other things, better urban design in the city, better transit policy, and better leadership.
Zoning changes that support good urbanism
The December 13 Zoning Review Board meeting saw approval for some big changes to Atlanta zoning (which will need City Council approval in 2019). In addition to reducing parking requirements, there’s also a proposal for allowing multi-unit housing and accessory-dwelling housing as urban infill.
This was the second phase of “fixes” for the City’s zoning ordinance, which is targeted for a complete rewrite as a much longer, multi-year process.
The City website has a bunch of info about the Zoning Reform project here. There’s also an entire website dedicated to it at ZoningATL.com.
Fuqua proposal at Piedmont Park gets the axe
The contentious plan for a Fuqua-built development near Monroe and 10th Street is dead. The Beltline has decided to not move forward with the sale of the land, next to Piedmont Park, that would have been the location.
A lot of Atlantans had concerns about the development on multiple levels, including the effect it might have had on bringing more car trips into an intersection with the BeltLine path (the project included 750 parking spaces). Bringing that many cars into an area that needs to be safer and more welcoming for active transportation would have been a mistake. It’s refreshing to see an inappropriate development proposal like this going away, rather than sprouting up quickly with the help of tax incentives.
More people are fighting for good things
The fight against the bad deal for development of the Gulch, and the fight for more BeltLine transit spending — both of these saw people getting excited and passionate about big projects in the city.
With the BeltLine Rail Now initiative, advocates who wanted to see the original vision of transit on the route got organized and made their voices heard — with success. MARTA, to its credit, really listened to community input. As a result, a greater amount of More MARTA spending will now go towards transit on the BeltLine.
Reaction to the Gulch development proposal, with its large incentives package, was strong. We saw groups speaking out in favor of good things like intercity rail investment, public streets, public engagement, community benefits, and more careful use of investment incentives. The City Council vote on incentives didn’t go the way we wanted, but it was nonetheless encouraging to see the vote be a close one — which in itself shows a shift from the “nod squad” days of the Kasim Reed administration, when the mayor was guaranteed of Council support.
Additionally, it’s good to see Invest Atlanta’s newer board member Fred Smith openly questioning the public benefits of big incentives for projects like the Gulch and the Georgia Aquarium expansion. Smith is reminding Atlanta that it’s not enough to spur investment for its own sake — we have to consider what Atlantans are getting in the way of benefits.
City of Atlanta’s support for placemaking projects
Two projects were selected by the Department of City Planning as winners of the City of Atlanta Placemaking Program.
The Jackson Street Bridge Parklet will take advantage of the crowds that gather to snap pics of the iconic Downtown view, and the West End Placemaking project will “activate key intersections along the White Street corridor to improve bike and pedestrian access in the area.” The planning department has already announced a 2019 version of the program. It’s good to see the City funding these small-scale investments in public spaces, where the projects are driven by input from neighborhoods.
The WORST of Atlanta urbanism, 2018
We shut down the Atlanta Streetcar on New Year’s Eve
The City of Atlanta handed over operations of the Downtown streetcar to MARTA this year. We were hopeful that the transition would mean fewer frustrating shutdowns of service during big events — something we’ve covered previously at ThreadATL.
We were wrong. On New Year’s Eve of 2018, while cities like Portland, Seattle, and Kansas City were promoting the use of their own streetcars during events and even offering free rides, the Atlanta Streetcar was shut down for service. It was embarrassing, perplexing, and frustrating all at once — a mix of emotions represented well in a tweet by ThreadATL co-founder Matthew Garbett, who sarcastically wrote this addendum to MARTA’s tweet about the closure:
“Due to human activity, we will no longer be providing our service of moving humans around. Please note that there is ample parking around the event. AMPLE! We strongly encourage you to drink and drive rather than use this mass transit service that we won’t be providing.”
Will the streetcar also be closed during the Super Bowl? Who is making these decisions and why can’t we do what other cities are doing by keeping the rail running during big events?
Complete Streets projects, already delayed, are now in further jeopardy
There’s a $410 million funding gap for the Renew Atlanta bond initiative, which was supposed to provide money for several good Complete Streets projects that we were promised — ones that had already seen repeated delays in construction timelines.
The resulting”rebaselining” of all projects funded by the bond could put those redesigns of streets, with their improved pedestrian infrastructure and bike lanes, in danger of being de-prioritized or deleted completely.
The pedestrian bridge over Northside Drive is for the benefit of drivers, not pedestrians
This year, ThreadATL was able to use the city’s Open Checkbook portal to piece together the true public cost of the ridiculously expensive pedestrian bridge over Northside Drive to the Mercedes-Benz stadium, and it’s worse than we’d thought, adding up to around $27 million instead of the $23 million that’s usually reported in the media.
As if that wasn’t bad enough, after the championship soccer game where Atlanta United took the trophy, the bridge was first put to use and we got to truly understand who it was for: drivers. Police officers directed all pedestrian traffic to the winding bridge and disallowed use of the crosswalk on the street. Everyone walking from the stadium to the Vine City MARTA Station was forced to use the bridge. The message was clear. This bridge separates people from the street so that drivers can have it all to themselves. So much for all the talk about the bridge being a great connection for people in Vine City. It’s clearly a traffic-control device to benefit cars.
The removal of the Zero Mile Post from the zero mile, rendering it just a post in a museum
Something that ThreadATL and gloATL worked together to explore in 2018 was the sense of place around the historic center point of the city and the Zero Mile Post that has stood at that spot since the 1850s. We did it with a walking tour and activation of the space (partnering with Historic Atlanta), and also with the Starting from Zero event, where we hosted a public forum about landmark and about city identity in general.
It was a shock to us when, without warning, the post was removed from the spot where it had stood for over 160 years and taken to the Atlanta History Center. The city deserves assurance that it will return to the zero mile. We’re disappointed that instead of creating something great around our city center, the State of Georgia (which owns the post and the land it’s on) allowed the relocation of the city center to a museum in Buckhead.
Things to watch in 2019
- E-scooters are a disruptive new technology in the city that’s forcing us to look at how we design streets, while also drawing attention from neighborhood groups and from City Council due to concerns about sidewalk safety.
- The possibility of a citywide Department of Transportation — there’s actually a working group focused on it already. Atlanta seems to be taking this seriously.
- The rise of interest in our city identity through groups like Historic Atlanta, Wonderroot murals about civil rights icons, the art on the BeltLine by Karcheik SIms-Alvarado focused on civil rights.
- The HouseATL task force is working on recommendations for the implementation of its recommendations for a major investment in affordable housing for the city.